Dear Wine Witch: I enjoyed a wonderful Cannonau di Sardegna at a friend’s house and did a little research to learn something about the wine. I was surprised to find out that Cannonau was the same grape as Grenache from France. How did Grenache ever get to the island of Sardegna? —Tony Navone
Dear Tony: Grenache is actually everywhere. It was the most widely planted red grape in the world until recently when the Chinese started to cultivate Cabernet and Merlot, which also covers the map. So at this point, there may be more Cabernet and Merlot in the world than Grenache. We are less aware of Grenache, probably because it hides behind many names and is most often blended with other grapes so that its identity is obscured.
In Spain, the grape is known as Garnacha, and because the variety is light in color and reaches high sugar levels with very soft tannins, it is typically blended with austere grapes like Tempranillo, which has deep color and pronounced tannins. But the Spaniards also make Garnacha as a delicious single varietal wine.
In France, Grenache grows mostly in the Rhone region and is part of the Rhone blend together with Syrah and Mourvedre, also more austere grapes. In addition to blended reds, the French make beautiful Rose` wines from Grenache.
In California, the grape takes the French name, Grenache, and is the third most widely planted red, especially in the Central Valley, where it has been used in inexpensive blends and sweet wines. But California winemakers have lately directed more attention to Grenache because, when properly cultivated, it can make very tasty lighter reds that consumers are appreciating now. Some winemakers consider it the new Pinot Noir.
During the 1990s, Grenache was the most widely planted grape in Australia until Cabernet Sauvignon took over. Because Grenache can tolerate drought and heat, it is also planted in Algeria and Morocco and in Israel.
Oddly enough, Grenache may have originated on the island of Sardegna, at least the Sardinians think so. The alternate and more common theory is that Grenache is indigenous to Spain and was dispersed around the western Mediterranean by the Aragon kingdom, which ruled Sardegna between 1297 and 1713. Cannonau, as the Italians call it, is also planted in Sicily and Calabria. Carignano is another Spanish grape that produces beautiful wines in Sardegna. But on the island of Sardegna, both Carignano and Cannonau reach exalted heights that no other area surpasses. You got lucky when you tasted Cannonau di Sardegna. When Grenache is treated well in the best vineyards, it renders a softly delicious, spicy wine like the one you tasted.
Ask your local wine merchant to locate some Cannonau di Sardegna for you, but don’t be surprised if he or she has never heard of it. He’s much more likely to carry Garnacha from Spain.